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Sleepers, Busts and Bold Predictions: The 2023 San Francisco 49ers

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Welcome to Sleepers, Busts and Bold Predictions for the 2023 fantasy football season. All summer, our analysts, two at a time, will preview all 32 NFL teams for the upcoming season. We’ll pick a pair of sleepers, a pair of busts and a pair of bold predictions. Sometimes they’ll be the same pick! Sometimes they will directly disagree! And that’s fine. Today: The San Francisco 49ers.

 

Below, Dan Fornek and Michael Dolan tackle the 49ers, starting with their picks in “The Answers,” then expanding on their picks in “The Explanation.”

2023 Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions: San Francisco 49ers

The Answers

Favorite Sleeper

Fornek: Elijah Mitchell
Dolan: Trey Lance

Biggest Bust

Fornek: George Kittle
Dolan: Brandon Aiyuk

Bold Prediction

Fornek: Brandon Aiyuk Is a Top-12 WR in PPG
Dolan: Deebo Samuel Is a WR1

The Explanations

Sleepers

Fornek: Elijah Mitchell

Injuries surfaced for Elijah Mitchell during his second season, forcing him to play in just five games. Ultimately, this incentivized San Francisco to trade for Christian McCaffrey, ruining fantasy managers’ high hopes for the explosive second-year running back. Mitchell will be relegated to backup duty with McCaffrey returning in 2023, but there are still reasons for optimism about him next season.

For one, Mitchell flashed the same efficient running style he showed during his rookie season with the 49ers during his five healthy games. Mitchell registered just 39 carries on the season but averaged 6.1 yards per carry and scored twice. In Weeks 10-12 (after McCaffery was acquired and during Mitchell’s longest sustained stretch of health), the second-year running back earned between 21% and 35% of the team’s offensive snaps. McCaffrey will undoubtedly dominate the touches in the backfield, but he hasn’t been the healthiest running back in recent years, which means Mitchell has upside as a handcuff running back.

Elijah Mitchell San Francisco 49ers 2023 Fantasy Football Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions

Elijah Mitchell is going off the board as the RB41 in fantasy drafts with an ADP of 124.1. Given his efficiency and the history of injuries in San Francisco’s wide zone rushing scheme, that is an ADP that can hit big if Mitchell gets a great opportunity in the backfield.

Dolan: Trey Lance

I know, I know, I know … Saying anything good about Trey Lance will ruffle some feathers in the fantasy community. But the stench that’s paired with his name has made him a screaming value in fantasy drafts. He’s currently being drafted outside the top 30 QBs on most platforms, and there’s still a chance he winds up as a starting quarterback – either via trade or in San Francisco – with enough dual-threat ability that should have fantasy managers salivating.

This time last year, Lance was being drafted as a top-10 QB simply due to upside. Nothing on the field indicated that upside is suddenly gone – he simply got injured and lost his opportunity to show what he’s capable of. The way things shook out has been unfortunate for Lance, but he’s still just 23 years old with plenty of room to grow. It wouldn’t be shocking to see a QB-needy team give him an opportunity to start at some point in 2023, and if that happens, the upside he possesses is well worth the late-round pick it’ll cost to acquire him. 

 

Busts

Fornek: George Kittle

George Kittle was the middle-round tight end to target last season, finishing as the TE2 in fantasy points per game (13.4) during the 2022 season. Kittle caught 60 of his 86 targets for 765 yards and 11 touchdowns on the season despite playing with three different quarterbacks throughout the season. However, it is hard to see him replicating that season again in 2023.

For one, it is hard to imagine that Kittle will score 11 touchdowns again in 2023. The veteran tight end had never topped six touchdowns before 2022 and was undoubtedly aided by an injury to Deebo Samuel in the season, as shown by the FTN Fantasy splits tool.

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Kittle will now have a full season to compete for touches with a healthy Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Christian McCaffrey. While he will still be an integral part of the passing offense, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where he is hitting a double-digit touchdown total on a team that has more than enough weapons in the red zone and some of the best after-the-catch receivers in the NFL.

Dolan: Brandon Aiyuk

Whether it’s Trey Lance or Brock Purdy under center, neither is likely to elevate Brandon Aiyuk to the level that the fantasy community wants to see. Aiyuk is an awesome talent, but he’s one of those guys whose fantasy stats may never reflect what he’s truly capable of on the football field. 

The 49ers have a loaded group of skill position players and Aiyuk doesn’t sit atop the pecking order when it comes to touches. Both Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey are higher priorities in the offense, and George Kittle is going to get his fair share of looks as well. Throw in the fact that San Francisco is a run-first offense, and Aiyuk’s path to touches likely isn’t enticing enough to justify taking him over the guys he’s going near in drafts.

Aiyuk likely won’t “bust” in the sense that he’s horrible for your team, but fantasy football is all about getting surplus value out of your picks. Barring any injuries to the guys around him, it’ll be an uphill battle for Aiyuk to pull that off.

 

Bold Predictions

Fornek: Brandon Aiyuk Is a Top-12 WR in PPG

Brandon Aiyuk had the best season of his career in 2022, finishing with 78 receptions on 114 targets for 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns. The veteran receiver finished as the WR21 in fantasy points per game in PPR formats (13.4) and the WR15 in overall points. Aiyuk also set a career-high in yards per route run (2.09) and consistently showed the ability to separate from coverage.

Many thought Aiyuk would struggle when Brock Purdy took over for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance, but statistically, there wasn’t much difference. In Weeks 1-12 (with Lance and Garoppolo at the helm), Aiyuk averaged 6.7 targets, 4.6 receptions, 59.3 receiving yards and scored six touchdowns. In six games with Purdy, Aiyuk averaged the same number of targets (6.7), almost the same amount of receptions (4.5) and saw his receiving yards per game increase to 60.5 while scoring two touchdowns.

Aiyuk could be the biggest beneficiary of Purdy remaining the starting quarterback during the 2023 season. The veteran receiver proved he could win downfield and will be the best vertical threat if the 49ers decide to utilize Deebo Samuel closer to the line of scrimmage. If Aiyuk sees more of the red zone work that went to Kittle in 2023, he absolutely has a top-12 finish in his range of outcomes.

Dolan: Deebo Samuel Is A WR1

Deebo Samuel San Francisco 49ers 2023 Fantasy Football Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions

People seem quick to forget that we’re only one year removed from Deebo Samuel finishing as the overall WR2. He had a bit of a down year (partially due to injury) in 2022, as evidenced by him underperforming relative to what his expected points would indicate. Despite the underperformance, the talent is unquestionably still there for Samuel, and that talent comes with sky-high upside.

I wouldn’t bank on Samuel being the type of guy to underperform in back-to-back seasons. His play style caters to exceeding expectations because of how frequently he accumulates YAC and produces chunk gains. He’s one of the most dangerous players in the league with the ball in his hands, and Kyle Shanahan knows this and will once again feed him accordingly. Guys like Samuel who get manufactured touches on a week-to-week basis consistently pay dividends in fantasy football, and I’m betting on a return to form in 2023.

 
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